On MOOCs, and the purpose of going to class

As reported a few weeks ago, in September I began a MOOC from the University of Pennsylvania via the Coursera platform.  This week, I have to admit to failure.  I’d been planning on documenting my progress; writing about how amazing it was for this huge, disparate group of scholars to be learning together from an Ivy League US university; and how much I enjoyed the freedom of watching lectures from the comfort of my sofa (office/kitchen/library/etc)… but it hasn’t worked out quite like that, and I’ve been trying to work out why.

I launched into the project full of enthusiasm.  I thought it was great that the presentation had obviously not been through UPenn’s PR department – there were spelling errors, the slides were basic comic sans and ended up scribbled all over anyway as the lecturer enjoyed underlining as he spoke.  I generally watched the sections at the weekend and did the corresponding test immediately afterwards (the deadline for each section being every Monday).

However, four weeks (of six) in, I’m afraid I’ve given up.  Sitting down to watch the lectures had become a chore, something I needed to do to get the tests done every week, despite the inherent interest in the topic and relevance to the other work I was doing. 

The appeal of MOOCs such as this one is partly selling the prestige of an institution I wouldn’t travel halfway round the world to attend once a week; and in this case, it just wasn’t sold as an aspirational experience.  The presentation didn’t help – I wanted to feel inspired by not only the content, but a polished delivery reflecting the status of the institution (I know, call me shallow…), and getting something out of it that I couldn’t get elsewhere.  The content was generally good and I do genuinely feel like I’ve learnt some useful stuff, but stuff that I will follow up by seeking some “real-life” instruction.

If this had been a six-week physical class, the method of presentation of the material would barely have mattered: the very act of going to a lecture hall, sitting with friends, colleagues, strangers, has value.   If I’d stopped attending, someone would have noticed.  Equally, it would have been rude of me to ask the lecturer if they wouldn’t mind hanging on for a minute while I put the kettle on, answered the phone, sprayed hobnob crumbs all over them; and the ability to do this online does devalue the experience.  The accountability generated from being physically present creates the expectation of participation and engagement that is simply not there when the relationship is mediated by a laptop screen.

It is easy to understand the current MOOC enthusiasm, not only for the university in terms of cost-efficiency (relatively little running cost after initial setup), but also in terms of responding to a need for flexible course provision and delivery across the globe, with interesting implications for the sense of place in a physical collegiate environment, and the nature of the pedagogic relationship between a teacher and student who never physically meet.  It is not just for “doing the work” that students gather in classes at a university.  Extra-curricular activities aside, the importance of social connections in motivating students is well-established and having a “good year” – a cohort of high-achievers – will mean that weaker members of the cohort will do better than they would have with a different peer group.  The type of immediate and frequent feedback gained from a well-directed debate significantly improves learning.  For all the enthusiasm around connecting via discussion forums and social networks, it just doesn’t work online.

Gary King wrote in a working paper earlier this year: “if your ancestors were to walk into a classroom today, they’d know where to sit, what to do, and how to act.”  The delivery modes of university teaching have changed little in centuries and there is arguably a place for the “if it ain’t broke” attitude.  However modern technology is connecting the academic world, it will only ever be a complement to the kind of learning our ancestors would recognise.


I’d be interested to hear from anyone who’s had a similar or opposite experience – leave a comment or click on Contact.   Proper references are available if you are interested!

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy, and Assistant Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Kent, with interests in clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions. She blogs about her research and HE topics at www.hcperrin.wordpress.com; or follow @HCPerrin on Twitter.



3 thoughts on “On MOOCs, and the purpose of going to class

  1. Mark H.

    What a wasted opportunity for UPenn. Your delivery is your first impression; if they don’t seem to care about their teaching, what does that say about how much they care about you? Online courses are about more than just slapping something on the ‘internet’…my sympathies, Hannah!

  2. rootmistress


    Left a comment on your opening post for this ‘MOOC experience’ just a minute ago and curious to find this follow up…I am still in both Networked Life and Social Network Analysis – both via Coursera. My motivation may be a tad different – as really interested in online teaching professionally (as well as a little interested in network analysis). I jumped at the opportunity of comparing the two courses as soon as Lada mentioned Networked Life was running in parallel with her own SNA course in her opening announcement. At that stage neither of them were sure of the extent of overlap…

    But what a contrasting experience! I think you might have found Lada’s lectures and the whole approach more engaging although peppered with more errors in the slides. To start with, you get more face time through her use of video throughout lectures – you feel like she is talking to you! Such a subtle difference in delivery, and yet I felt instantly more emotionally engaged. Then there are simulations you get to play with, and analysis of your own facebook social network (in week 1!!!), and playing with software, and Google Hangout sessions and homework for which you actually HAVE to engage with other people (awards in points for the final exam is a great motivator)….Just an entirely different feel.

    Same platform, different teaching styles…wondering what the effect on the overall drop out rates will be?

    Would recommend you have a sneaky peak at Lada’s course – worth while just to see if you’s find it more appealing…Let me know:)


    1. hcperrin Post author

      Hello rtmiss – that’s really interesting, I can absolutely see how being able to see a person talking would be more engaging and I’m keen to try another online course and compare. I think your point about teaching styles is also an important one – having an enthusiastic and dynamic speaker will inevitably make the material come alive in a far more meaningful sense than underlinings on a slide. Maybe the direct personal relevance of looking at your own social situation grabs attention better? I’ll definitely take a look. I also agree that the stats on how many sign up, how many start, and how many finish would be interesting, I wonder if Coursera publish them anywhere?


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